Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 9

It all starts at home. So says the Fourth Commandment. Martin Luther explains it this way.
The Fourth Commandment:
"Honor your father and your mother."
We should fear and love God, and so we should not despise our parents and superiors, nor provoke them to anger, but honor, serve, obey, love and esteem them.
God places children in the care and under the authority of parents, making parenthood the highest and most important office in all creation. As I reflect on Scripture and my personal experiences, I've come to believe that parents have two main responsibilities:
  • To prepare their children for responsible adulthood. This includes providing them with protection, discipline, opportunities to learn and grow as people, and affirmation. (Affirmation and discipline being the two main components of love.)
  • To help them to know the God revealed to the world through Jesus Christ. This necessarily entails praying with one's children, reading and discussing Scripture with them, worshiping with them regularly, seeing to it that they are trained in what it means to be a Christian through the ministries of a local church, and striving to be a positive example of a repentant sinner who daily turns to God for forgiveness and new life.
These are major responsibilities, not to be taken as lightly as they appear to be by many today. Their magnitude is why husbands and wives willing to undertake them are worthy of honor.

Of course, we know that many parents are unworthy of honor. "Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart," the New Testament book of Colossians warns. There are parents whose incessant abuse--psychological, emotional, physical, even spiritual--of their children provokes anger and discouragement. Such parents are manifestly not fulfilling the functions of parenthood.

The other day, I heard the story of a mother angry with her son because, unlike his two older sisters, who are straight-A students, he'd brought home a report card with a C on it. There was no indication that the little guy wasn't trying. He just got a C. But his mother has been riding him for weeks about it. When I hear stories like that, I almost want to horsewhip the offending parent! How dare they discourage a precious child of God?

But I grow equally angry with parents like the one overheard by a friend at a store recently. This father was in a store with his children to pick out Mother's Day gifts. But one of the man's children spied a decorated bottle opener and decided that he wanted it. (The kid wanted a bottle opener!) The father said, "No." Obviously, this kid had learned that "No" meant "Maybe" with his father. My friend said that this kid threw a major hissy fit, screaming that he had to have the bottle opener. Instead of standing firm, the dad relented. He bought the bottle opener, telling the kid, "I don't know why you want it."

He wanted it because that father had never taught his kid that there's such a thing as limits. Even Mick Jagger knows that you can't always get what you want. Parents who fail to teach their children this lesson are setting them up for later discouragement and difficulty. That's why I said earlier that discipline is a prime component of love.

Another category of parents unworthy of honor are those who expect their children to do things that are contrary to God's will. Jesus once said that all of us, adults and children, should come to Him with the credulity of children. What He says of all more mature Christians in relation to infants in faith applies equally to parents in their spiritual responsibilities to their children:
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:5-7)
Every parent, in fact, every adult, should pray that they're not stumbling blocks preventing children from having joyful relationships with the God revealed to all in Christ.

But by its position at the beginning of the the second table of commandments, a table that deals with our human relationships, this commandment has implications for more than just the relationships of parents and their children. It establishes the expectation that believers in God will have an appropriate respect for authority. No organization, including governments, can function without there being authority.

Believers are called upon to voluntarily render their obedience to authorities for the common good. In the New Testament, Christians were told to honor emperors and rulers, none of whom were fellow Christians in those days, because they provided the peace and security needed to for Christians to live their lives and practice their faith. Christians are under the same call of obedience today.

But, of course, just as is true of those parents unworthy of such honor and obedience, there are other authority figures who cease being worthy of those things. In the case of governments or rulers, this can happen. We're not to conform to the expectations of any authority figure who orders us to do things contrary to God's will for human beings. (I discuss these things in more detail here, here, and, to a lesser extent, here.)

We share our lives with many other people. A respectful and appropriate attitude toward those with the responsibility of wielding authority is essential for the functioning of our world. And it really does begin at home.

[Here are links to the first eight installments of the series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8]

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